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Illinois colleges have to reform developmental education. How is it going so far?

Kishwaukee College English instructor Carl Fuerst
Peter Medlin
Kishwaukee College English instructor Carl Fuerst

Kishwaukee College English instructor Carl Fuerst is finishing up a quick lesson. There are only eight students in the class, so he gets to spend most of the time roaming the room helping them individually with their essays.

It’s a developmental English class. These students didn’t place into the college-level course because of their high school GPA or test scores.

Back in 2021, Illinois passed the Developmental Education Reform Act. Before that, many of them would spend their time and money on classes that don’t earn them any credit, just to work their way into college-level coursework.

Judson Curry is the dean in the office of instruction at Kishwaukee.

“Even if they persevere through those classes, that's added time and expense,” he said. “So, you lose students along the way.”

But, how big of a problem is it? Well, in Illinois, just 1 in 5 community college students placed in developmental classes end up graduating.

And even though the number is going down, a lot of Illinois students are still placed in developmental classes. For years, 40% of high school grads entering community colleges took at least one remedial class. That fell to 27% last year because colleges were forced to reform both how students are placed into classes and the classes themselves.

That’s why Mr. Fuerst’s class at Kishwaukee is a “co-requisite” course. That means students are placed into the regular credit-bearing English 101 class like anyone else. But they also get extra layers of support. At Kish, developmental students stay an extra hour after the regular class to get additional help.

This is pretty new for a lot of community colleges across the state. Kishwaukee has offered a few co-requisite English classes, but this fall they’ve significantly scaled it up for English and Math.

To do that effectively, the school worked with the Partnership for College Completion. They’re a nonprofit focused on equity in higher education. They provide resources for colleges expanding co-requisite offerings.

Lisa Castillo Richmond is the executive director of the Partnership for College Completion.

She says traditional developmental education is failing students. But it’s a complex problem.

“It implicates what happens in the classroom," she said, "[it] implicates things connected to professional development for faculty and staff, it implicates how students are placed into their first course sequences in the institution. It implicates the admissions process."

The Partnership for College Completion is working with over 20 colleges in Illinois. And even though it’s still early in the reform process, some of the progress is clear.

“59% of students in co-requisite courses pass a math gateway course in their first year," said Castillo Richmond, "compared to 15% for the next model of reform and 13%, in the traditional developmental education model."

That’s according to a report the Illinois Community College Board released this year. Course completion percentages went up substantially for English courses too. National data also points to more student success with this model.

And, Castillo Richmond says, it’s also important to disaggregate the data by race. She says Black students are twice as likely to be placed into developmental courses. And once there, they are significantly less likely to complete their introductory-level classes.

The data in the report shows that in 2021-22, 8% of Black students passed the traditional developmental math course in their first year. In co-requisite classes, it went up to 50%. With Hispanic students, it went from 13% to 59%. And there are similar jumps for English.

But she stresses that there’s still a long way to go. Almost all Illinois community colleges still use traditional developmental classes at least a little bit.

“We are not seeing increases between 2021 and 2022 in students that are enrolled in co-requisite models of support,” she said.

36% of developmental English students and 10% of math students are in co-requisite courses.

There’s also the issue of how students are placed into developmental classes. Before the reform act, colleges would most often rely on ACT scores or placement exams to decide if a student needed remedial courses.

Now, they’re supposed to be using “multiple measures” including those test scores, high school GPA, transitional courses and more. But Castillo Richmond says there’s still a lot of variance in how placement works depending on the college.

“Maybe 1/3 of them," she said, "have adopted multiple measures as mandated by the legislation."

And even though the data shows co-requisite courses help students get out of developmental classes, at this point the data doesn’t point to it significantly increasing student retention overall. There are still other barriers to student success throughout a student’s college journey.

While it’s relatively new at some schools, Oakton Community College in suburban Des Plaines has been experimenting with different developmental models for years. Donovan Braud is an English instructor who teaches co-requisite courses.

“The success rates of the students [in the co-requisite classes] are higher than students placed directly into the 101 without the co-requisite,” he said. “So, it creates an interesting situation on campus sometimes where the students who are technically placed into the developmental [course] are the object of some envy in class because they get a little bit of extra help.”

Back at Kishwaukee, Fuerst says it’s too early to say if co-requisite courses will lead to more success for his students, but he’s optimistic -- especially because of the one-on-one support he can offer.

“Unlike before," said Fuerst, "they're around students who are college ready, and they see their behaviors and their approaches, and you can see the developmental students modeling those things."

He says that attendance has been noticeably higher than in the traditional developmental classes. But only time will tell if the extra support will help propel them to extra success.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.